Russian Vladimir Putin has decided to invade Ukraine within days, US President Joe Biden said on Friday after Moscow-backed separatists told civilians to leave separatist areas by bus, a move the West fears to be part of a pretext for an attack.
In one of the worst post-Cold War crises, Russia wants to prevent Kiev from joining NATO and accuses the West of hysteria, saying it has no intention of invading, while that the United States and its allies are adamant: the military build-up continues.
“We have reason to believe that Russian forces are planning and intending to attack Ukraine in the coming week, in the next few days,” Biden told reporters at the White House, adding that Kiev would be a target.
“From that moment, I am convinced that he made the decision.”
Late Friday, Ukrainian military intelligence said Russian special forces planted explosives in social infrastructure in Donetsk and urged residents to stay home. Russia’s Federal Security Service did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Citing correspondents on the ground, Russian news agencies later reported that two explosions hit Luhansk, one of the main cities of the breakaway Ukrainian People’s Republic of Lugansk, and that a section of a gas pipeline in the area had caught fire.
Asked about the evacuation, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said it was a “good example” of what Washington fears.
“We have … long predicted to all of you that the Russians would take part in pretexts or actions that would be a predicate for either war or to create confusion or spread disinformation on the ground,” she said. told reporters.
Hours after the announcement of the evacuation, a jeep exploded in front of a rebel government building in the city of Donetsk.
Reuters reporters saw the vehicle surrounded by shrapnel, one wheel thrown from the blast. Russian media said it belonged to a separatist official.
Many families in the predominantly Russian-speaking region have already obtained Moscow citizenship and within hours some were boarding buses to an evacuation point in Donetsk, where authorities said 700,000 people would leave.
Irina Lysanova, 22, said she was packing to travel with her retired mother: “Mom is freaking out,” she said. His father, Konstantin, 62, did not go. “This is my homeland,” he said.
The evacuation began after the conflict zone saw what sources described as the most intense artillery bombardment in years on Friday.
Ukraine was Russia’s most painful loss of the 14 former republics under its control before the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Russian-backed rebels seized parts of eastern Ukraine in 2014, the same year Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region. Kiev says more than 14,000 people have since died in the conflict in the east.
“SHOOT EVERYONE AND EVERYTHING”
Russia has released footage to show it is pulling troops from the border, but the United States instead believes there has been an increase to between 169,000 and 190,000 troops, up from 100,000 at the end of January.
New helicopters and a battle group deployment of tanks, armored personnel carriers and support equipment have been deployed in Russia near the border, according to US company Maxar Technologies, which is following the developments with images satellites.
The Kremlin has tens of thousands of soldiers holding drills in Belarus, northern Ukraine, which are due to end on Sunday. Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko met Putin on Friday, saying soldiers could stay as long as needed.
Western countries fear a conflict on a scale not seen in Europe at least since the Yugoslav and Chechen wars of the 1990s, when hundreds of thousands died and millions fled.
The evacuation increased pressure on the Russian ruble and other assets.
A diplomatic source with years of experience in the conflict described Friday’s shelling as the heaviest since major fighting there ended in a ceasefire in 2015. “They’re shooting – everyone and everything .”
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said she did not believe a full-fledged invasion was the most likely scenario, but that Russia could carry out a coup in Ukraine, attack critical infrastructure or incite violence that she would blame on Kiev.
Kiev also said a full-scale invasion was unlikely.
Since the overthrow of a pro-Russian president, Ukraine has held joint military exercises with NATO and taken delivery of weapons, including US Javelin missiles and Turkish drones.
Putin says Ukraine’s growing ties to the alliance could make it a launching pad for missiles targeting Russia.
As the crisis deepens, the West is also weighing its non-military options.
Russia’s ban on the SWIFT financial system is unlikely to be included in an initial invasion sanctions package, a White House official said on Friday, confirming a Reuters report.
How allies should respond to aggression beyond a full invasion is far from agreed, US and European officials have said amid differences within the EU.
“Those closest to Russia, such as Hungary, will be against any sanction other than a military invasion,” according to a senior diplomat.